Processing Difficult Emotions (Part One)
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Emotions, like waves, will rise and retreat.
I often tell my clients that emotions are like waves that will rise and retreat. I say that to reassure them that no feeling is permanent, and every difficult emotion will pass. But as an Oregon coast girl (born and raised), I also know it's not as simple as that. Just like I'm keenly aware of the dangers of the ocean, I also know that processing difficult emotions can feel scary, overwhelming, and impossible at times.
I am reminded of a time that I was body boarding with my friends in high school. I was trying to catch a wave to ride to the shore, and I must have underestimated the power of the ocean (and probably didn't time the wave right). I found myself sucked underwater, spinning in circles, unsure which way was up. It was a terrifying experience and while it was momentary, it felt like an eternity at the time.
Growing up, it was normal and necessary to be warned about the dangers of sneaker waves, those sudden surges of water that catch beach-goers by surprise. And of course, we were always admonished to beware of rip currents, which could prevent someone from getting back to shore. We would hear stories of visitors who weren't familiar with the dangers, who tragically lost their lives to the ocean.
Similarly, we've probably felt slapped around by emotional waves a time or two. We probably have had times when our emotions caught us off guard, and times that we weren't sure we'd make it back to the figurative shore-- our emotional calm space.
Unhealthy Emotion Processing Patterns
As a therapist, I have come to notice patterns in the people that I work with. One pattern I've noticed is how people tend to respond to difficult emotions. On one end of the spectrum, there are people who bury their head in the sand. Difficult emotions? They don't wanna talk about it; they don't wanna think about it. They do everything they can to avoid it and pretend it isn't there.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the people who solidly feel sucked into the ocean of emotion. Their difficulties leave them feeling like they're drowning, with no sight of the shore-line. The idea of processing or working *through* their troubles is a foreign concept to them. If they've made it back to the shore in the past, they couldn't begin to tell you how they got back to safety.
Some people bounce back and forth between these extremes, which might go a little something like this:
"I can't face this emotion. If I pretend it isn't there, maybe it will go away...
Ugh, I can't avoid it any longer, I'm getting sucked in...
I'm drowning. I can't do this. It's too much for me to face, I've got to get out of this...
Back to burying my head in the sand, because clearly I can't face my emotions without drowning."
A Healthier Alternative
One of my goals as a therapist is to help clients find a way out of the patterns that aren't working for them. When it comes to emotion processing, our goal is to find a more stable path, a healthier alternative to avoiding and/or drowning in our emotions. Back to our ocean analogy, this is the person who can safely stroll on the beach, wade in the water, and successfully navigate the waves as they come.
The goal of this approach would be to acknowledge our emotions, get curious about them, validate our experience, and find a way to effectively work *through* difficult emotions. That's a big order, but it's possible to achieve with practice.
Do any of these unhealthy patterns sound familiar to you? Are you looking for that healthier alternative to processing difficult emotions? If so, you'll want to come back to read our blog post this Sunday. We'll be sharing a simple, effective tool for working through any emotion.
Carrie Nicholes is a Maryland Board approved Licensed Certified Social Worker - Clinical (LCSW-C) and the founder of Cedar Counseling & Wellness. Recognized as one of the top therapists in Annapolis, she has a lifelong passion for teaching people tools to improve their lives.